ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Nearly 1,400 patients who sought appointments through the Veterans Affairs medical center in St. Louis over the past decade were never seen, according to details of an audit released Monday by the VA.
The audit of 731 VA hospitals and outpatient clinics—based on a snapshot of VA data from May 15 -- found that system-wide, more than 57,000 patients were still awaiting initial medical appointments 90 days or more after requesting them.
It found that nearly 64,000 who enrolled in the VA system over the past 10 years had never had appointments, including 1,354 in St. Louis (12th most nationally), 188 in Kansas City, 102 in Poplar Bluff and 71 in Columbia.
The VA said it is taking corrective action.
“VA has begun contacting and scheduling all Veterans who are waiting for care in VA clinics or arranging for care in the community, while simultaneously addressing the underlying issues that impede Veterans’ access,” the agency said in response to the audit.
A message seeking comment from Marcena Gunter, spokeswoman for the VA center in St. Louis, was not returned.
Sarah Feldman, a spokeswoman for Sen. Claire McCaskill, said the Missouri Democrat’s office was still going over information from the audit.
“What is clear is that some veterans are falling through the cracks, and when we’re talking about men and women who’ve served our country in uniform, that is unacceptable,” Feldman said in a statement.
Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, said in a statement that veterans “deserve access to the best care available. I’ll continue to do everything I can to ensure these heroes receive just that.”
The four Missouri facilities each had areas were average wait times were among the worst among the facilities evaluated. The St. Louis center had the sixth-longest average wait time for new patients seeking specialty care, 86 days. Columbia had the 12th worst ranking in that category, with an average wait time of 66 days.
For established patients seeking specialty care, the Poplar Bluff site’s average wait time of 10 days was seventh-worst.
Kansas City’s VA center ranked 21st worst for new patients seeking mental health care, with an average wait time of 44 days. St. Louis had the 14th worst wait for established patients seeking mental health treatment.
The audit is the first nationwide examination at the VA network following reports two months ago of patients dying while awaiting appointments and of cover-ups at the Phoenix VA center. Among other problems, the examination showed that 13 percent of schedulers reported being told by supervisors to falsify appointment schedules to make patient waits appear shorter.
It said a 14-day target for waiting times was “not attainable,” given growing demand for VA services and poor planning, and called the 2011 decision by senior VA officials setting it, and then basing bonuses on meeting the target “an organizational leadership failure.”
The St. Louis VA has been under scrutiny since last month, when the former chief of psychiatry complained that too few psychiatric patients were being seen there, creating a delay in patient care. The complaints by Dr. Jose Mathews prompted calls for action by both McCaskill and Blunt.
Other problems have arisen there in recent years. In 2010, faulty sterilization at the center’s dental clinic raised concerns that 1,812 veterans were potentially exposed to hepatitis and HIV. Testing eventually found no link to either disease in any of the patients.
Another cleanliness concern arose in February 2011 when the hospital shut down its operating rooms because rust stains were found on surgical equipment. Surgeries resumed several months later after the faulty equipment was cleaned or replaced. The VA revised polices and opened a new $7 million sterile processing lab in May 2012.